Friday, September 22, 2023

Ayesha Manazir iddiqi: The Centre

Ayesha Manazir iddiqi: The Centre (Gillian Flynn Books)


Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi’s The Centre is a thriller, a horror story, and a satire, but above all else an investigation of the relationahip of selfhood and language. The horror element comes not from an alien or supernatural source, but from the depths of human nature, with a reference not to technology but to anthropology and human history, myth, and ritual. Siddiqi’s novel occupies the fraught line between fascination and disgust, between the satiric and the gruesome. Siddiqi, like some other writers working in or adjacent to the horror genre, tends to hold the terrifying elements at arm’s length for a large part of the novel, to shift abruptly away from thrilling or shocking possibilities, withholding them  until a climactic moment later in the story. This deferral of horror has the effect of highlighting, alongside the shocking elements of the story, the ordinary conflicts, struggles, and terrors of everyday lie.

The novel is strictly from Anisa’s point of view (and at one point there is a sly hint of association between the narrator and the author); that narrative choice emphasizes the core of the novel, the insistence that subjective experience is impossible to communicate transparently—all communication involves a translation that is distorted by the point of view and experience of each party to the conversation. This incommunicability is most obvious in Anisa’s relationships with two friends and a lover. At the heart of the novel, though, is a mysterious process that seeks to break down this barrier to understanding by providing a process of acquiring languages and adopting other people’s experience. The institution that sponsors this process is The Centre of the book’s title.

The story  follows three primary arcs. The first is Anisa’s relationship with her friend Naima, who makes a living from tarot readings, tantra, and ayahuasca workshops for women of color. Anisa met Naima when she first moved to London at 18 to attend college, and they are now in their 30s. This part of the story is the most conventional, two friends struggling for love and for a place in the world, a storyline that ends with a wedding (though not the most reassuring of literary weddings). Naima is not only Anisa’s anchor, her best friend and confidant, but their relationship is also, despite Naima’s unconventional way of making a living, the “normal” against which Anisa’s stranger experiences can be measured. The second narrative arc deals with Adam, a man whom she meets at a seminar on literary translation: Adam is the person who introduces her to the Centre, a cult-like language school that claims to achieve for its adherents total fluency in a language in 10 days. The third narrative deals with the Centre itself and with  Anisa’s relationship with Shiba, a staff member at the Centre who becomes her guide (her Virgil, even) through the the Centre’s mysteries, possibilities, and even horrors.

            Anisa, dissatisfied with settling for a life that falls below her personal and literary ambitions, begins her journey, though, with a tarot reading that Naima does for her (with a comic touch: Naima consults the instruction booklet that came with the pack of cards for her interpreatation): according to Naima (and the instructions that came with the cards) Anisa is ”searching for the reasons for her discontent outside yourself, when the discontent itself is the reason for the discontent.” Thinking about her discontent leads Anisa to consider translation as a profession and an art form, meditating on the difficulties of finding an emotional equivalent for even the most basic elements of language. As evidence she references Harold Bloom’s discussion of the difficulty of adequately translating the famous first line of Camus’s L’Etranger.

She is inspired to attend a seminar on literary translation, where she first encounters Adam, who is also in the audience. She is impressed by his seeming fluency in several languages, and after striking up a conversation with him. When she asks how he has managed to learn so many languages, he offers the stale line that he could tell her but then he’d have to kill her, a line that serves as both a joke and a premonition. Their relationship is tentative at first: he is shy and cautious, particularly about sex, and he is also reticent regarding his skill in learning languages. As she ultimately says, there’s something “off” about Adam, and otherness that provides a lot of the tension in the first half of the story, and is finally explicated in an angry confrontation between what is at that point the former couple, toward the end.

            For the first quarter of the novel, the story is a frequently funny rom-com and coming-of-age late story about thirty-somethings in London finding their way through sexual, cultural, friendship, and family stresses—except for the occasional mention of “the horror that was to come.” Anisa navigates her ambitions, her sometimes fractious relationship with Naima, ad her slowly, hesitantly developing relationship with Adam, up to an including the adoption of a cat together (a big step, after all, toward shared domesticity). The break in the narrative occurs when a Anisa and Adam travel to introduce him to her family in Pakistan. Cultural and sexual tensions arise, from multiple misunderstandings based in incommensurable personal experience of a man and a woman from opposite ends of the colonial history of t heir countries. The biggest shock to their relationship comes when Adam reveals that he has learned Urdu, as a sort of gift to Anisa, but her reaction is not what he expects (not the least of which is that he now speaks the language better than she does, a fact that her family remarks upon). This insistence on the linguistic and translational aspects of disconnections between individuals with differing bodily experience of life prepares for both the couple’s breakup and the more startling aspects of the tale in the chapters to come.

After Adam provides Anisa with a referral to The Centre (something that p[articipants are only eligible to do once in a lifetime), almost as a parting gift upon their breakup, she undergoes an odd interview and an even stranger physical exam, and then journeys to the remote facility. The building is half 18th-century mansion and half modern glass and steel, the two sections surrounding a central courtyard and garden. The two halves of the building suggest the two tendencies of the story: toward gothic mystery and speculative fiction (both, though, grounded more in anthropology than in the supernatural or the technological).

The central garden: It seems perpetually lush and green, regardless of the season, but more pointedly, there is in the center of the garden a fenced-off section of poisonous plants. Their role in the Centre’s activity is never specified, so they function as a menacing presence and, by the end, a suggestion that there is more going on than the narrator is revealing. The poisonous presence are also a first hint of Anisa’s growing suspicions abut what is going on in the facility.

            At first, though, the program of The Centre is almost monastic. The regimen involves, first, the confiscation of all communication devices, then a strict schedule of meditation, meals, silence (except for occasional contact with staff), and long hours of sitting in a booth listening to a “Storyteller” drone on and on in a language that the learner does not (yet) understand. Anisa’s first crises are, on the one hand, boredom (despite the excellence of the meals prepared by the on-site chefs), and the forced withdrawal from Whatsapp and social media. At one point, she breaks down in her cell-like room and is comforted by an elderly cleaner (with whom she is not supposed to interact) who convinces her to go back to her language booth. Her other, sanctioned, interactions are only with Shiba, who encourages her but also echoes her life experience as a South Asian émigré. Their bond grows to fill ghe gap left by Anisa’s growing distance from Naima (who has become engaged to a man that Anisa does not approve of) and by Shiba’s  isolation as the chief of staff (she is not only in charge but is the daughter of one of the founders).

            Their friendship softens the cult-like atmosphere and the, suddently, Anisa begins to understand Peter, Her German Storyteller, as he drones on and on in her headphones, telling his life story in intimate detail. Her new facility in Germanm though, also has a darker side: she realizes that her recent, disturbing nightmares seem to be based on Peter’s story, even though she was having the nightmares before she could understand him.

            After “graduating” from The Centre, Anisa seeks to fulfill her professional ambitions, selecting a German literary novel (which is an allegory about language and translation) and publishes a successful English version of the text. Her feeling of success is mixed with her sense of inadequacy, which she identifies as the imposter syndrome, and sheh reaches out to Shiba. They meet and bond further, and then Anisa decides to go back to The Centre to learn Ruissian. On her second visit, the institution’s linguistic labyrinth darkens. She learns that her new Storyteller is in fact the elderly cleaner kthat she encountered on her first visit, but she is told that she will not be able to meet her this time, since the old woman is ill and in hospital. A further crisis comes when Shiba invites Anisa to visit her in the private quatters that are forbidden to leaners, and in a moment when Shiba is occupied and her laptop is open, Anisa further violates the ru les by checking her email. Whe follows is a thriller-like sequence of panic ,fear, and flight, ending abruptly when she attempts to enter another forbidden area: whereupon the narrator and the hnarrative go black. The secret behind the door will not be revealed until much later (following the pattern of the novel’s thriller and horror elements: at each stage, the narrative pulls back, postponing the full effect as the normal (though still ominous) life at The Centre and beyond resumes.

            The resto fthe story follows Anisa’s success as a translator, and a second trip to South Asia, this time in the company of Shiba, to visit with Shiba’s father and the other founders, who are coming together, from their various institutions around the world, to conduct The Centre’s essential business and the plans for its future. The visit is initially amicable, but rapidly falls apart in two ways: The final revelation of The Centre’s secrets in their full horror become clear, but Anisa’s final break with Shiba, her father, and the intstitution stem from a more banal, but in a way even more horrifying and disgusting, incident.

Anisa’s flight from India and from Shiba’s famiy does not quite resolve her relation to The Centre and its horrors. A further revelation, in a conversation with Shiba during the novel’s final weddiing scenes, both turns the screw further andn threatens to inveigle Anisa again in the web of The Centre, despite her awareness of its dark heart.

As horror fiction, The Centre has much in common with other historical and contemporary horror novels that are grounded in cults and human history (rather than supernatural or alien forces). I kept thinking of Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones, whose horror derives from essential and powerful cultural misunderstandings and colonial domination of one culture over another. The Centre is full of the same criticism of colonial domination, but usually in a lighter and more satirical tone, but like Jay’s famous novel, its horror is rooted in anthropology and history. Among more recent novels, Siddiqi’s book has in common with Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House a focus on cult-like enclaves and on female experience of the world. The Centre also has themes in common with Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, though without that story’s supernatural and historical elements. And John Darnielle’s invocation of the disruption of ordinary means of communication and the eruption of terrifying possibilities into ordinary (if unsatisfying) lives in his Universal Harvester has parallels in Siddiqi’s contrast between the ordinary conflicts and the awful potentialities of human nature.

What distinguishes The Centre from these books is partly tone: there is a lightness in Siddiqi’s evocation of the social lives of thirty-something Londoners of varying backgrounds that both contrasts and hightlights the anger and misunderstanding, both cultural and personal, among her characters. Much of the narrative’s tension is based not on exceptional circumstances but on ordinary life, not on the horror underneath but on the banality on the surface of the characters’ lives. In Anisa’s heated arguments with Adam, Naima, and Shiba, what is revealed is the incommensurability of individual experience: our inner lives, and basic points of view, and. Untranslatable across the gap between us. Anisa and the founders of The Centre are, each in their own way and each with their own moral dilemmas and lapses, trying to overcome that barrier. The question is whether total understanding across the barrier between us, a kind of telepathic communication, would result in horror and conflict or peace and understanding. Would sharing another person’s consciousness lead to empathy or nightmares. Rather than the style of horror that mines anxiety and shock as emotional forces,





Wednesday, September 29, 2021

William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin: The last Laidlaw (and the first)

 William McIlvanney's three novels featuring detective Jack Laidlaw.Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1981), an Strange Loyalties (1991) are not only the foundation of Tartan Noir but distinctive and atmospheric additions to the crime novel as a genre. McIlvanney died in 2015, left an unfinished Laidlaw novel, a prequel to the earlier trilogy, and Ian Rankin (the other most prominent Scottish crime writer) has now finished the  book, released as The Dark Remains by Europa Editioons in their World Noir series.

This is not so much a "young Laidlaw" sort of thing: instead, Laidlaw has arrived in a new post but is aleady fully formed as a contrary cop with methods that constantly clash with his superiors. The gangsters who populate the original trilogy are also here, in an earlier stage of the conflict among them as they establish their territories in Glasgow. The narrativev voice is also consistent with the other  books: Rankin is definitely channeling McIlvanney''s voice, I couldn't tell where the one left off and the other started. The plotting is also very McIlvanney, twisting through the gangland disputes and police assumptions until a final revelation that the outsider Laidlaw is the only one able to reveal.

Because Laidlaw would rather be on the street than in the station, we get a vivid view of a Glasgow that once was, from the dark interior to the lush suburbs. Laidlaw takes buses rather than police cars, a lot of the time, and the panoramic view of the city is enthralling. The book 

 The Dark Remains is a marvel of quirky, witty prose (much like Laidlaw himself). Laidlaw leaves books by foreign philosophers on his desk in the station, but he keeps them handy not because he frequently refers to them: rather they are props to reinforce his persona as the odd man out, so that the other cops will leave him alone with his thoughts. His one friend (or almost friend) makes some attempt to understand him but Laidlaw keeps even him at a distance. For that matter, he also keeps his wife at a distance: when on a case, he prefers to stay in a low-rent hotel in the city rather than return to his home on the periphery, partly to stay close to the case and the streets, partly not to stay close to his wife. He loves his kids, but his dedication to eh job has severly strained his marriage (a prominent factor in the trilogy as well). 

The novel is funny, philosophical, gritty, dark, and very deep in its portrayal of human interactions and failings. There is considerable violence (mostly just off[-stage) and even more threats and implications of violence. The gangsters are fully human, but there is not a "heart of gold" among them: This is noir territory, nothing cozy about Laidlaw's Glasgow. If you haven't read McIlvanney, you could start with this wonderful "prequel" in collaboration with Rankin or with the triogy: one way or the other, I encourage you to experience McIlvanney's deep and involving exploration of Glasgow and of the literary possibilities of noir.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

More (late) summer reading: Laura Lippman etc.

 Laura Lippman has recently been releaseing some of her most ambitious and succesful novels: I'm thinking in particular of the new-noir Sunburn and the new Dream Girl. Dream Girl is a twisty combination of horror (a la Stephen King's Misery, explicitly evoked in the book), a literary thriller, an academic comedy, and a meditation on resentment, revenge, andn authorship. Highly recommended and both compelling and fun.

The Good Turn, by Dervla McTiernan, was the kind of hidden gem that sometimes turns up on the digital galley websites, offering previews to bloggers and critics. This is the third novel in a series that I hadn't heard of, but it seemed interesting enough to have a look. In fact, this is an excellent police procedural with numerous distinctive features preventing it from settling into the groove of the average cop story. The characters are well-drawn, the plot complex and forward-moving, and the story involving. The setting, the west of Ireland and a bit in Dublin, is drawn vividly, and offers insight unavailable to a tourist. I went out and bought the first two novels in the series--how much more recommendation do you need?


Another Irish novel, by another author  I was not previously aware of: 56 Days, by Catherine Ryan Howard. There are too many twists in this one for me to reveal anything about the story (almost any preview would be a spoiler) except that it's very contemporary--set in the first Irish Covid lockdown, providing a claustrophobic background to the stor. I can only say that it starts out as a rom-com, shifts into horror and police procedural, and very effectively shifts back and forth in time to unpeel the story layer by layer, up to the final revelation. All along, you suspect that there's more going on than you can see, but Howard sustains both suspense and surprise all the way through. Ultimately it's a psychological thriller, an early crime-fiction take on the pandemic, and an entertaining read all the way to the end.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Giarico Carofiglio review


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Suggestions for summer reading: Part 1

 I haven't been posting much lately, so to avoid the pressure of doing full reviews of the books I've read recently, I'm going to list some books with brief comments and recommendations.: Here are the first 3:

Becoming Inspectyor Chen, by Qiu Xiaolong: The story follows 2 tracks, one in the present, in which Inspector Chen faces a dilemma of conscience more profound than the murder mystery he is (covertly) investigating. The other is the detective's backstory, beginning in the miseries of the Cultural Revolution and returning frequently to a lane of traditional houses that also figures in the contemporary story. The style of the writing is typical for this series, reading as if it  had been translated from formal Chinese, and also typical is the vivid portrayal of contemporary China in all its aspects.

The Foreign Girls, by Sergio Olguín: This second novel by Argentine author Olguín follows the same character as the first (Veronica is the character, The Fragility of Bodies is the book), the independent-minded journalist who is now taking off some time after the traumatic first case, involving trains, murder, and the exploitation of children. While traveling in the country, outside her usual haunts in Buenos Aires, she becomes involved with a pair of women from Europe, one Scandinavian and one Italian, who are traveling together. The book has a strange structure in the beginning, first going over the beginning of the story in e-mails that Veronica sends to a friend, then in a normal narrative going over all the same ground, before going beyond the e-mails at the point of the crisis that Veronica is telling, the murder of the 2 young women. The book is propulsive in its momentum and compulsive in its hold on the reader, as well as,violent, and explicit in the violence of men against women.

The Darkness Knows, by Arnaldur Indri∂ason: Indri∂ason has begun a new series that has aspects of 2 big shifts in Icelandic history and culture: the occupation of the country by the U.S. during WWII and the tourist boom after the financial crisis. The main character of this book, Konrád, whose career in the police began in the first of these two periods and has just ended in the second. He is drawn out of retirement when the corpse of a missing person that he had fruitlessly searched for years before suddenly turns up in a  melting glacier. The plot is meticulous (as always with Indri∂ason) in its depiction of the investigation, and leands relentlessly toward a moral dilemma that the reader will not see coming.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Alan Parks, Bobby March will Live Forever/Jo Nesbø, The Kingdom/

 A quick review of three recent. books, all of which have a lot of music in them, but two of them have rock music as a major theme. Jo Nesbø's The Kingdom has a lot of music in it, being referred to or played in the background of the main story, but it's more of a matter of texture fot ehis book, rather than a. main theme. The Kingdom is not one of the Harry Hole books, it's a stand-alone about a pair of brothers who have endured a lot of abuse and tragedy. One has gone to America to escape amd make his fortune, the other stays on the famil's "kingdom," a farmstead (not a working farm) on the outskirts of a small Norwegian town. The prodical son's return, with a scheme for the development of the town and an American wife, kicks off a series of memories about the past (mostly unpleasant, sometimes grisly) and a series of events in the present (arson, murder, assault), with the two threads coming together in unpredictable ways. There are twists that you may expect, and yet sometimes when you think you have something figured out, Nesbø turns them around into something else. It's an intriguing story about love, sex, ambition, regret, and above all else family.

Staalesen's running character in his long-running detective series is Varg Veum, an untypical detective (his backgtound is in social work) often involved in cases featuring children. In Fallen Angels, though, we go back to Veum's own past, in memories and connections set in motion by the funeral of a school friend. We learn a lot about Veum, but even more about the local music scene of the '60s, in the detective's youth, when soe of his friends were in a regionally succeful band. The story leads us to the bandmembers in the present day and into an elaborate revenge. plot, along wiht a glimpse of the music scene of present-day Bergen. The pacing of Fallen Angels is different from the typical Veum story (and different from the average crime novel), delving into the character's youth before showing (or inferring) the murders that will show up about halfway into the book. From there, the pace picks up and we are back in crime fiction territory, in a moving story that involves the dark side of families, even evidently happy ones.

Bobby March will Live Forever is the third Harry McCoy book by Alan Parks, and here, too, a musician's past, mostly regional, success is the backstory that punctuates the contemporary tale (of gangters, murder, rape, and general mayhem that readers of Parks's previous novels will surely expect to see. Parks's portrayal of the Glasgow of the recent past is gritty and evocative, and his cops and gangsters are credible and complex. The interspersed music plot seems to be mostly an unrelated portrait of the trials and pitfalls of success and near-success in rock and roll's classic period (Bobby March, the guitarist who gives the book its title, once played with the Rolling Stones in a recording session, along with his participation in an almost-succesful band and his release of less-than-succesful solo recordings). The music plot does circle around to find its link to the main plot of the story, in more of a metaphorical than a literal way, in an unexpected solution to the event that kicks off the whole novel: McCoy's discovery of the body (and possible murder) of March in a Glasgow hotel. The story is propulsive, even in its digressions (and the digression about the world of rock is compelling), and develops in unexpected shifts (sometimes a victim is not so clearly a victim, for instance) and changes of direction that will keep a reader on their toes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia

The Transaction is a novel set in the 1980s in Sicily, with murder and the mafia as important (though off-stage) elements of the story. But D'Izzia's novel is less Montalbano than Pirandello, not so much a crime novel as a literary and philosophical tale. The author is from Sicily, but emigrated to Canada and wrote The Transaction was written in English (with the creative license of a writer, à la Nabokov, whose native language is not English).

The story concerns a businessman from Milan, sent to a small town in Sicily to finalize a land deal that would allow his company to open a branch in the south. But the journey is plagued with difficulties from the beginning: his train breaks down and he is late arriving in the town, only to find that his contact there has been shot dead. From there, he wanders from one hostile encounter to another.

The narrative is in the first person, and there are hints that the narrator is creating some of the hostility himself, through his manner and attitude, And when the obstacles to his mission seem insurmountable, he remains in the town, courting hatred and danger, well beyond any reasonable time, despite insults and injuries.

The text is very detailed, evoking the claustrophobic Sicilian town vividly. The story is told clearly, though without a lot of forward motion, and I was pulled right along to the end. A major theme and characteristic element of the story (and this is hardly a spoiler) is that the "transaction" of the title never happens. The ending is, in fact, quite puzzling, leaving the reader to decide if the narrator is suicidal, infatuated, or perhaps insane.